The secrets behind John Paulson’s success… via Musings on markets

The banking and credit crisis of 2008 had few heroes and lots of investing legends who were humbled. Very few of these so called experts saw the crisis coming, and even those who did were unable to act on that belief.

One exception is John Paulson, a hedge fund manager/investor based in New York. He saw a bubble in the housing market in 2006 and created a hedge fund to bet on the bubble bursting; what made his bet unique was that his use of the Credit Default Swap (CDS) market to bet that sub-prime securities would collapse and he was right. Greg Zuckerman, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, has a short article reviewing Paulson’s strategy in the link below.

Greg, whose writing I enjoy reading, is probably the world’s leading authority on Paulson (other than Paulson himself), since he has spent the last year researching the man and has written a book on his investing acumen. You can get the book, titled “The Greatest Trade Ever” at your local bestseller:

In his Wall Street Journal article, Greg has a collection of lessons that the average investor can learn from Paulson. While I agree with most of them, I do disagree with one point that he makes, i.e., that the bond market is a better predictor of problems than the stock market. The bond market is a better predictor of credit risk and default problems than the equity market, simply because it is far more focused on that risk. Equity investors juggle a lot more balls in the air- growth, risk and cash flows – and they can get distracted, especially about default risk. History suggests, however, that equities have led bonds in predicting economic growth and profitability.

Here is where I agree with Greg. I think equity investors will gain by paying attention to bond markets, just as bond investors will gain by being aware of developments in equity markets. We have compartmentalized investing to the point that investors are often unaware of when these markets become disconnected, which are the danger signals that one market has become mispriced. In the context of valuation, here is where I think this recognition is most useful.

1. Risk Premiums: In my paper on equity risk premiums, I have a section where I compare implied equity risk premiums and default spreads on bonds and not the correlation between the two over time. The periods when they have moved in opposite directions, such as 1996-99 (when equity premiums dropped and default spreads rose) and 2004-2007 (when default spreads dropped while equity risk premiums remained stagnant) were precursors to major market corrections – the dot com bubble in the equity market in 2000 and the sub-prime bubble in the bond market in 2007-08.
2. Distressed companies: When valuing equity in distressed companies, the threat of default constants overhangs the entire valuation. I believe that we can derive valuable information from the corporate bond market that can help up refine and modify the valuation of distressed companies. I describe this process in this paper.

If Paulson’s lessons are heeded, we should see more joint work between equity research analysts and bond analysts and a greater willingness to look across markets for investing clues. I am not holding my breath!!!

P.S: For those of you who are conspiracy theorists, John Paulson is not related to former treasury secretary and Goldman CEO, Hank Paulso.

P.S2: A disclosure is in order. John Paulson just gave $ 20 million to the Stern School of Business at NYU, where I teach. Since did not partake in this gift, I think I can still be objective about his investing strategies.

John Paulson
Paulson & Co Security Selection Return – Long Consumer Equity Portfolio